Ladies and Gentleman, Mel Gibson is back!
After a long career hiatus, due to his drunken anti-Semitic comments, the once beloved filmmaker has returned to Hollywood’s good graces with Hacksaw Ridge, a biopic of a Desmond Doss, the first soldier to ever receive the medal of honour without ever carrying a gun.
When we first meet Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) he is an awkward country boy from 40’s Virginia. The scenes of his upbringing play like a folksy tale along the lines of Old Yeller. Doss’ awkward manner can come off as too hokey, especially when he tries to woo nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). However, the scenes with the family are excellent. Haunted by his time in the Great War, Desmond’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) drowns his grief in alcohol, which can make him violent to his wife and kids. Desmond’s mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) raises her boys in the pacifistic principals of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Weaving delivers an excellent performance as a troubled man battling PTSD. You come to understand why he doesn’t want his sons to enlist, and his anger when they go against his wishes.
When Desmond starts army training, the plot bears a resemblance to Full Metal Jacket. Filling in for Sgt. Hartmann is Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn). While Vaughn’s able to get a few funny lines out his first scene (seeing Desmond’s rope typing skills “You’re not building a bra”), his performance comes off as too safe for a drill sergeant. He still gives a good performance, but you probably needed someone more intimidating like JK Simmons. We do get some great characters in the other soldiers. The biggest standout is Ryker (Luke Bracy) who we first see doing pull ups in the nude. As hilarious punishment, Sgt. Howell has him go through drills naked.
But it’s when Desmond refuses to fire a gun that the film truly shines. Traumatized by a past incident, Desmond has taken a vow never to carry a gun. This draws the ire of the army, especially Captain Glover (Sam Worthington). Fellow soldiers label him a coward, subjecting him to beatings. Howell inflicts random punishments for Doss. It all leads to him facing court martial. Yet, through it all, Desmond still refuses to carry a gun. Gibson and writers Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight handles this with surprising complexity. You can understand why Glover doesn’t approve of Doss’ actions, expecting soldiers to follow orders. At times, you wish Desmond would just pick up the gun. Even Howell offers some sympathy, offering to give Doss an honourable discharge.
It’s in these moments that Doss feels more compelling. He doesn’t want to go back on his promise to God, and yet he can’t just stand by while others fight for him. Garfield really brings out Desmond’s internal conflict through his hushed voice. You can see the pressure get to him, leading to an emotional breakdown in a cell. It’s through Tom’s actions that Desmond can serve.
And we get to the battlefields, which is handled better here than in Full Metal Jacket. As Passion of the Christ has proven, Gibson isn’t afraid to portray violence at its most brutal. That fearlessness is necessary to portray war with honesty. Through the blinding smoke, we see fields of rotting corpses being eaten by maggots. When the guns are a blazing, we bear witness to heads exploding, soldiers burned alive and tanks exploding.
It’s also the moment where Desmond is at his most heroic. Staying behind atop the title ridge, he searches across the battle fields for any surviving soldiers, while keeping out of sight from Japanese Soldiers. With each rescue, he prays to god “Help me get one more.”
Hacksaw Ridge honours the heroics of an unconventional man and his struggles to hold on to his principals. Gibson proves he’s still a compelling director, keeping the audience gripped both in a courtroom and in a battlefield. It’s also the second wind for Gibson. Hopefully he doesn’t blow it.